The Innocent Origins of Scarcity Thinking

by | Oct 15, 2009

Once upon a time there were three little pigs. The time had come for the little pigs to leave home and seek their fortune.
Of course, the first thing they needed to do was to find shelter. The first pig built a house of straw he found scattered on the ground. The second pig built a house of sticks he scavenged from the woods.
The third little pig discovered an abandoned cache of bricks. “These would be perfect for a house,” he thought. But then he decided to live out in the open because he just didn’t feel right about taking anything without asking and he didn’t very much like to ask.
The big bad wolf, who loved to eat little piggies, attacked the first pig’s house one night. Though the door was tightly latched, the wolf merely took a gigantic breath. He huffed and he puffed and lo! He blew the house down.
The first pig fled to his brother’s stick house. Again the wolf came calling. Again he huffed and he puffed and lo! He blew the house down as well.
The two little pigs ran frantically into the night seeking shelter. They found their homeless brother holed up inside a sewer pipe. Working desperately, they managed to block the opening with a large boulder and, for the time being, they were safe from the wolf.
“What a wise little piggy I am,” reflected the brother from his damp, dark hiding place. “As long as I keep moving, that old wolf will never get me.”
Of course it wasn’t very long before running and hiding and scavenging exhausted the little piggies and the wolf had himself a lovely feast.
What’s Wrong with this Fable?
There’s something just plain wrong about a fairy tale that ends the way this one does. We know intuitively that the pigs were supposed to have learned a lesson and lived to profit by it. Instead, we see the very pig who we expected to build a sturdy house of bricks settle for a life on the run. But is this such a surprising choice? How often in our own lives have we made similar choices leading to chronic feelings of scarcity?
Scarcity as a Rationalization and Protection
For years I believed that my own anxieties around money were the result of being the oldest of eight kids. I would explain with a laugh that the accountant who lived in my back brain multiplied everything by ten before deciding if it was affordable. Somehow I kept a straight face while I said this, even with evidence of past and present prosperity everywhere around me.
One particular memory seemed to support my story about money. I was about five years old and I was on the phone with my best friend, Mary. It was early evening in the fall of my first grade year.
“Can you go roller skating?” Mary asked. “I’ll ask,” I said, pretending to put down the phone. A moment later I got back on. “My Mom won’t let me.” I said.
I have always remembered that the reason I didn’t actually ask my Mom was that I didn’t think we had the money and I didn’t want to embarrass her. For forty years I believed that, until one day I saw that something was wrong with that picture.
Scarcity as a Dodge
First, my friend Mary’s family was no better off than mine. In fact I once sent her money, believing it to be an act of charity, but provoking an embarrassing scene between our parents. Second, when I thought about it, I found it odd that this particular memory would pop up whenever I thought about money and my childhood. It’s odd because there weren’t eight kids in the family at that time, so my back brain accountant wouldn’t have been multiplying by ten, if indeed she was multiplying by anything at all.
If the story isn’t as I remember it, I wondered, why would I have pretended that we couldn’t afford for me to go skating?
I only had to ask the question in order to see the obvious answer: I had been far more afraid of rollerskating than of asking for money. In other words I created a scarcity script to cover up my awkwardness, both the anticipated awkwardness of skating and the additional awkwardness of not knowing how to just say “No, thank you.”
Oh. My. How many times have I said, “I can’t afford it,” when I meant but didn’t want to say, “No, thank you,” or “I’m scared”?
I used scarcity to fend off scary possibilities for a very long time and I got pretty good at it. The results could have been grim, but fortunately I woke up to what I was doing in time to build a house of bricks.
If you recognize yourself in these stories, never fear. One of the grand things about interior barriers to prosperity is that they dissolve in the light of understanding. And when interior barriers come down, exterior barriers become much more manageable.

Here are some pointers for lowering your interior barriers to prosperity.

  • Listen to yourself when you talk about money. Do you apologize for having it? For not having it? Do you make excuses? One tip that led me to my own phony memory was the ring of apology about it, a rather tinny ring at that.
  • Notice how you are when good things happen. Are you comfortable with having friends, neighbors and colleagues witness your good fortune? Or do you reflexively minimize blessings so that others won’t envy you or even want to take what you have?
  • Be accountable. Whether your financial situation is good, bad or indifferent, life gets easier when you know what you have and how you use it. For me, this means balancing bank statements promptly, and maintaining complete and current records of all credit and debit card transactions.
  • Learn to mix money and love. It took years before I began to get comfortable talking about money with people I loved. That makes running a household a guessing game and in subtle and not-so-subtle ways sabotages energy that could otherwise enrich both your emotional and your financial life.